Dry January: How to take a break from alcohol so you’ll actually stick with it

It’s been a while since I quit drinking (a choice I made mostly because alcohol plus a panic disorder and clinical depression either don’t mix at all, or mix all too well), but I still feel awkward sometimes at bars, and experience the occasional craving after a crummy day. Generally, I feel more secure and happier without alcohol — largely because I recall that my times with alcohol weren’t always merry, and I feel my health has improved without it.

But what if you want to take a break from or eliminate alcohol not because you have a drinking problem (in which case, mental health counseling and recovery programs like AA would be recommended), but because you’re concerned about the potential negative health effects? Or what if you just want to take a pause to reassess your relationship with alcohol? Or perhaps you’re abstaining just for the month as part of Dry January, Sober October (yep, that’s a thing, too) or even a diet plan like Whole30?

Quitting can still be tough (if it weren’t, drying out for a month wouldn’t be offered up as a challenge). We compiled a list of mental health experts’ and registered dietitians’ tips for how to get started going sober.

Stand back and ask: ‘How does drinking serve me?’

“When we are looking to change habits, including non-addictive alcohol consumption, we need to stand back and assess how the habit is serving us,” says Kristin Koskinen, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “Are there components of the habit that we aren’t willing to abandon, like the social nature of having drinks? Are there ways to work around it? What are the root drivers that make the habit appealing?”

People drink for a variety of reasons, Koskinen notes, but “stress-management and social connections” tend to top her clients’ lists.

“When clients decide to move away from an evening glass of wine (or two) to unwind, it can be helpful to find strategies to help bridge the gap from drinking alcohol to not. The association with relaxation can come from the process, as well as the chemical influence of that glass of wine. Components of the process include choosing a bottle, opening it, pouring into a special glass, and that first ‘bite’ that comes from the tannic and acidic players,” Koskinen says. “I ask clients to assess what it is about having a drink that serves them. Is it the feeling they get from the alcohol? Is it the suggestion that a glass in-hand means that the day is done and the pressure is off? What if we took the alcohol out of the picture, but kept the rest?”

Asking these questions helps you to reveal the drive behind the choice to drink in the first place. It can also help you to find alternatives to drinking that satisfy those needs.

“When we work through and tap into each component, break down the drives and processes, we can make choices that support our priorities (like hanging out with friends) without feeding the habit (polishing off a bottle of wine).”